Shrimp Banh Mi Wrap at Reel Seafood Co.

Reel Seafood Co banh mi wrap

Wait, where's the bread?

By Deanna Fox

I've a bold proclamation to make.

No one in the Capital District is making an authentic banh mi. Not nobody. Not no how.

There are many places that certainly give it the ol' college try, but they all fall short in one way or another. Now, I'm not saying that these eateries should just give up, but maybe they should start rethinking what they are trying to do.

One area restaurant is already doing that, and it might come as a surprise. It's Reel Seafood Co., one of the independently-owned holdouts on Wolf Road in Colonie, and its take on banh mi is something to be admired.

Banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich, but it also represents a merging of cultures and a side effect of European empire building. When the French colonized what is now modern-day Vietnam (then referred to as Indochina), they brought along the classic baguette. Today, banh mi denotes an individually-sized baguette sandwich that is filled with a range of items that draw upon flavors from Vietnamese cuisine. The primary sandwich agents are quick-pickled vegetables (typically carrot and daikon radish that's been julienned and brined in rice wine vinegar), a grilled and thinly sliced meat (usually pork), and cilantro. A seasoned mayonnaise sometimes enters the mix, but the most critical element is the bread. Banh mi means, essentially, bread, and it is where most restaurants fall short when attempting to make this sandwich.

I've had banh mi that were good. Really good. I've also had banh mi that were downright inedible from formerly outstanding restaurants, and I had to pay 15 bones for the experience. The stumbling point is always the bread. Sometimes it's more an Italian ciabatta. Other times, it's basically a toasted sandwich roll. Neither are right for the job.

Reel Seafood Co. gets around this problem by completely forgoing the bread. In going this direction, it replicates the best part of the sandwich (the flavors) while avoiding its most common downfall (again, the bread).

Changing things up

Reel Seafood Co updated interior 2014

Reel Seafood Co. was spearheaded by LeGrande Serras, the ebullient and mustachioed owner/front of the house maestro, for 30 years before selling his restaurant to daughter Aliki Serras earlier this year. At 28 years old, Aliki understands the changing dynamics of dining culture, the aging demographic of typical patrons to the restaurant, and the increasingly sophisticated palate of the Gen X/Millennial eater. Aliki quickly got busy with a restaurant refresh to ensure that Reel Seafood Co. was around for another 30 years.

The dining room was revamped and the menu was updated. Among the updates: a re-imagined banh mi.

Gone was the baguette, and in its place was a warmed spinach wrap. In doing this, Reel Seafood Co. focused on what it does best (fresh, quality seafood), while appealing to a younger dining crowd (international flavors at a fair price point).

The shrimp banh mi wrap featured shrimp so fresh, so perfectly cooked, that if not for the characteristic "pop" that shrimp gives once bitten, one probably wouldn't realize they were eating shrimp. It isn't the least bit fishy tasting, it just tastes like ocean -- crisp, sapphire-blue ocean. Sticky rice, shredded red cabbage, quick-pickled carrots, a hint of jalapeno, cilantro sprigs, and a side of ginger ponzu dipping sauce round out the wrap. At $11 and with a choice of fries, house salad, a cup of chowder, or coleslaw, it's a generous lunchtime option that is filling and satisfying.

If you're a diehard for the crunchy, crusty version of banh mi that leaves little crumbs of leavened happiness on your lap, this isn't it. But if you, like me, want the flavor of banh mi without the unmitigated bread disappointment that will no doubt follow at most places, maybe you should consider Reel Seafood Co.

Reel Seafood Co tuna tartare
Tuna tartare with scallop crudo is enhanced by meyer lemon-infused olive oil and white balsamic vinegar.

The shrimp banh mi wrap isn't the only worthwhile dish on the new Reel Seafood Co. menu. Other lunch options worth a try include the yin yang scallops ($13), tuna tartare with scallop crudo ($13), the short rib melt on a brioche bun ($13), and chicken clubhouse wrap ($10).

Try lunch

Notice how I focused on the lunch menu? Well, here's a secret I'll key you in on. A lot of people don't think they can afford to dine at well-known, reputable, upscale establishments for fear of the menu being cost-prohibitive. Trying out a restaurant at lunch is a great way to overcome this. The kitchen is the same, and a diner will receive a representation of what is available on the dinner menu, usually at a lower price. (Oftentimes, the lunch menu is simply a scaled-down portion of what is served for dinner.)

Reel Seafood Co Wolf Road sign

Sure, you could go somewhere cheaper on the chain-filled straightaway that is Wolf Road, but I can bet you the vast majority of those restaurants aren't sourcing seafood weekly from hometown operations like Fin - Your Fishmonger. And dining there supports a local independent stalwart.

The best part of Wolf Road is that it is easy to get to from basically all points in the Capital Region, which makes stopping in for lunch or a post-work drink even more attractive.

Deanna Fox writes about many things, mostly about food. More can be found on her website, Twitter, or Instagram.

More Eat This
+ Spumoni at Civitello's
+ Fried oysters at Javier's
+ French onion soup at The Ginger Man

Find It

Reel Seafood Co.
195 Wolf Road
Colonie, NY 12205

Comments

I disagree with "No one in the Capital District is making an authentic banh mi." Pho Yum has excellent banh mi, and include all of the elements you mention that make them "authentic," including the requisite crusty French baguette.

I find it surprising that this article leads with such a statement but then focuses on a wrap. Why not just lead with a local restaurant is taking a different spin on the traditional banh mi?

Have you tried Capital Q's Bahn Mi? They've replaced the baguette with a sandwich roll, and the traditional pork belly and pate with BBQ pulled pork or brisket, and presented the veggies in a sort-of deconstructed plating - as cole slaw, served next to the sandwich. It's excellent. You have to order it by it's secret code name though - don't expect to see it labeled as 'Bahn Mi' on the menu...

Which reminds me... have you tried McDonald's Bahn Mi? ...

@MJ - Great comment! You bring up a few good points. Let me try my best to counter.

I've also had the banh mi at Pho Yum. The bread still isn't right. And the vegetables are monster-sized as compared to traditional banh mi. Otherwise, the flavor is pretty good.

Perhaps the argument should extend past semantics and examine where we, as eaters, draw the line in what constitutes an actual banh mi and what doesn't. For instance, if the bread is right, but the flavor is off, or another element is missing, is it still banh mi? As I mentioned in a conversation with a friend about this, if banh mi is served on pita, or a bagel, which are both technically leavened bread, is it still banh mi?

I look forward to your thoughts! Thanks for bringing up some really great points.

Unless Pho Yum has changed their suppliers, theirs isn't an authentic bahn mi. The bread should be crusty, yes, but not like a French baguette. It has a lighter texture and brittler crust thanks to the addition of rice flour. Rather than crunch it should shatter when you bite into it, sending little shards of crust everywhere.

@Paul - what? No... and, no. I've actually never been to Capital Q. I've had food from there, but never ventured in myself. I'll look into it. And Mickey D's has banh mi currently on it's menu? Thanks for the scoop.

@Burnt My Fingers - thanks for the clarification. I didn't realize rice flour was the secret ingredient.

Oh my gosh, I love you, Paul. Thanks for the lulz.

As a potential diner, the naming of this wrap just gets me squinty and frustrated. It's not banh mi. There's freaking RICE in a spinach wrap. And where is the lovely magical mayo? Just call it "Some Kind of Vaguely Asian Wrap" because that's what it is, with one too many components. Take out the wrap, it could be a lovely small plate lunch.

Is all of the seafood being sourced from Fin, or just a select few items? That seems like a lot of volume for them to have to pull.

On a more serious note than my last comment - I believe Kim's makes the best Banh Mi in the area (based on sandwich ingredients) but unfortunately uses the worst bread. With Bread & Honey open a few buildings down the road, my dream is the two will collaborate on the capital region's first great Banh Mi.

Also, this post has alerted me to the fact that I've been spelling 'Banh' wrong for a very long time. Oops...

Lol, Paul. Deanna, the secret code is "McRib". You won't get a real banh mi, but you won't be bothered with a real pork rib either.

As a former west coaster, I just want to point out that NY banh mi in general suck. Including some of the iconic places in LES and Brooklyn. Y'all just don't put enough stuff in there. The Profusser claims there's good banh mi in Virginia but I haven't checked out.

To try the gold standard, go to Saigon Sandwich in the Tenderloin. (Watch out for the homeless guy with the pointed stick.) Get the combo "extra spicy". You're there.

And... banh mi vs bahn mi? Who knew. You read AOA, you learn something.

I love the banh mi at Kim's on Madison. The bread is perfect and so are the fillings. I get one once a week and it never disappoints. And at $5, give it a try!

I agree with Deanna that nobody is doing it well.
I disagree that the solution is to bastardize the dish.

If you recall, Philly Bar & Grill imports the required rolls for a cheesesteak from Amoroso's. That's about a 250 mile journey from Latham. And even if bread is hard to transport, the dough is a lot more resilient.

My advice is to not give up on the real thing. Accept no substitutes. If you can't find a good banh mi locally, and you have a fierce craving, Montreal is closer than you think.

While you are there, you can grab some kickass poutine to boot.

All this Bahn Mi talk is making me hungry.

Ooof! I just love you commenters!

@Albany Jane - You're right, it's not true banh mi, a point I was sure to make in the post. A couple of quotation marks, or a little explanation in the menu description would easily amend seemingly everyone's issue here. RSCo. does not source ALL of their seafood from Fin, but Aliki says they try to order one or two specialty items per week, which is really admirable.

@Paul - Kim's + Bread and Honey sounds like a great collaboration. I'm going to see what I can do about that. Good thinking! As to spelling, me too. I triple-referenced everything before writing this post.

@Burnt My Fingers - so many gems in your comment! I'm sending my west coast correspondent out to SS immediately and will report back. I'll check out Virginia banh mi next time I'm, you know, checking out my tobacco fields or something.

@Larry - I'll stop in asap. That's the great thing about banh mi, it's cheap! Unless you're paying $15 for it, like I recently did. I'm so befuddled by how bad that sandwich was, I'm actually thinking of calling the owner. I think I have his cell number somewhere.

@Daniel B - GIVE ME REAL BANH MI, OR GIVE ME DEATH! Okay, not really, but you should capitalize on that and make t-shirts or bumper stickers or something. My passport expires the end of the month. Wondering if I can get a quick 24 hour trip to M-town in.

Another VERY important point everyone seems to be missing in this piece is about this graph:

"Notice how I focused on the lunch menu? Well, here's a secret I'll key you in on. A lot of people don't think they can afford to dine at well-known, reputable, upscale establishments for fear of the menu being cost-prohibitive. Trying out a restaurant at lunch is a great way to overcome this. The kitchen is the same, and a diner will receive a representation of what is available on the dinner menu, usually at a lower price. (Oftentimes, the lunch menu is simply a scaled-down portion of what is served for dinner.)"

The dining scene in the Capital Region seems to be very "us" vs. "them." The haves and have-nots. Many restaurants feel prohibitively expensive. But if you go for lunch or take advantage of happy hour deals, it's not that bad, and you're getting some really superior food. My post about Javier's follows the same vein. I wish more restaurants would think about this. Young professionals are an emerging monetary powerhouse, not in that they can spend a lot of money dining out in one sitting ($50 for a steak? They aren't going for it), but that they dine out often and want reasonable prices and quality food. Play to their palates and pocketbooks now, and they'll become your loyal customers for more expensive meals down the road. Brand loyalty is a real thing. I'm glad Aliki and RSCo. see this potential.

>sourcing seafood weekly

For the love of God, say that you meant "sourcing daily". A week-old fish?

Real banh mi is indeed about the bread. Literally--bread--that's what the word means, and more specifically the crisp, flaky rice-flour enriched baguette. Much like how in Italy 'panino' can refer to the roll itself or the sandwich.

That 'banh mi wrap' looks like something you'd get at Sodexo. Not impressed.

Not sure if it has been discussed, but the 'baguette' is more French style then authentic, and the shop (in Chicago) that I learned to make them at used rice flour in addition to wheat flour - presumably the blend is responsible for the unique texture of the crumb and crust.

Kim's on Madison easily makes the best banh mi in the area. Only issue is BE CAREFUL for sometimes extremely HOT chilli peppers.....and I am used to the heat. Bread is awesome and price is nearly give away. I would agree that ONLY thing good about Wolf road is that it is near other areas, otherwise it represents the worst of American strip mall life and the geography of nowhere type existence.

I lived in Vietnam where I ate bánh mì nearly every day. I've also lived in Los Angeles and Boston where I've had countless variations of what can be considered proper bánh mì.

While there are many variations, bánh mì = bread, and when it comes to the sandwich, bánh mì = baguette, not tortilla or any other baguette substitute.

There are plenty of other Vietnamese dishes which have the same ingredients as a bánh mì, but that doesn't make it a bánh mì. So I don't understand why we would call that pseudo-Vietnamese wrap bánh mì. Clearly it is not.

Just enjoyed eating another banh mi sandwich at Kim's on Madison. Sooooo good. I usually order the grilled beef, but today I had the roast port with pate and fresh veggies. Yum.

Thanks for all the comments!

@Lu - nope, I actually meant weekly, and that doesn't mean the seafood is a week-old when it is served. From what I was told, Reel Seafood Co. procures a special item just about weekly and runs it as just that - A SPECIAL - while they have it.

Okay, so we all agree it's not on bread, a point I made several times over in the story. The flavor, and the fresh quality of all ingredients, are superb. If we're going to get hung-up on the bread, then the vast majority of "banh mi" in the area aren't actually what they say they are.

Be nice to Reel Seafood Co., it's doing so really amazing stuff over there.

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